Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Dear America

For the first time in my life I am paying attention to your electoral antics (I'm sorry, there is no better word). In years past you have done what ever it is you have done, and I have taken note at the end of the procedure, when you have vomited onto the world stage a creature that no lady in her right mind would admit into her living room, and declared the thing President. Your last few excursions have been so uniformly catastrophic in their outcome that one rather dreads what may come next.

I have spoken to American educated people, in the hope of understanding what it is that you are trying to achieve, but to no avail. Some years ago, in California, I asked someone to explained to me what "GOP" meant, and got a blank look (Google, fortunately, explained). You people have been blessed with democracy, but I do not think that you understand it. You certainly do not understand the intent of the men who framed your constitution and laws, and perhaps that is just as well. I have had it explained to me that what your current system is intended to provide is a system of "check and balances" (this sounded like a lecture in basic high school political theory). So let us look at your system....

You conduct an enormously expensive circus, which occupies people and resources for months. The candidates in this farce attempt to demonstrate their patriotism (whatever that means), religious conviction (for whatever value that may have), purity, honour and general all-round worthiness. At the end of this disgusting freak show, you appoint the most convincing freak to the highest office that your country recognizes. And the rest of us are lumbered with your choice. This is becoming less important as you flush your culture and all its achievements into the cloaca of ignorance and isolationism that your popular press portrays as "news", but it is still annoying.

What you seem to have failed to understand is the underlying purpose of the democratic process: change. It does not matter whether the current encumbent overlord is liberal, labour, tory, new labour, democrat or republican, or any of the other flavours espoused by the political machines that battle in the electoral arena. What matters is change: that no idea become the only idea, because most people can't encompass complex enough ideas to be useful in the real world.

In most cases the people who put themselves forward for election mean well. They genuinely believe that they have something to offer the electorate, and that they are better suited to hold authority than their rivals. And most of them are genuine and honest in their beliefs: very few human beings are capable of doing something that they know to be wrong in the face of that wrongness. They will try to rationalize their actions and positions as "right", and in the best interests of the electorate. Some of them may have to lie to themselves and their advisors to achieve this intellectual flexibility, but they can do it, and feel entirely worthy and justified in their actions.

So it is that all the candidates for your next election firmly believe that they, and they alone, can safely guide America into the future. And if this is the case, then by logical corollary, all of their opponents must be evil.

People, wake up and smell the tribal warfare: the world is now much more confusing than it was when we had to deal with a few thousand people and their needs. You now have to deal with millions, and their needs and wants are a widespread, contradictory minefield: you cannot please them all, So just because you and your candidate do not get your own way, it does not mean that you have been sabotaged, or that you have been treated unfairly: you are dealing with a large enough statistical sample that the math of "the wisdom of crowds", and the ebb and flow of rumour and innuendo come into play. Individuals are predictable, but the response of crowds varies with the weather, air pressure, and what they saw last on the news. Forget logic.

The critcal thing, the only thing that democracy achieves consistently (if properly practiced, such as not in Zimbabwe) is change. No set of ideas can hold sway for too long, which is good. Most professional politicians have ideas formed by study groups and committees and theory: they lack the perspective of the human being trying to buy a loaf of bread. Democracy cranks them through fast enough that any idea gets a chance, and the really stupid ones get aborted promptly. It takes any newly elected functionary at least 6 months to figure out the functional structure (which is never what it appears to be on paper), and another 6 months to learn to play it usefully. If you are too thick to acknowledge the structure in the first place, you will never be a player: the machinery will encase you up in a bubble, and keep you harmlessly occupied until you are flushed out with the trash at the end of your term. I used to be a public servant, I've seen this done.

Much of what I have read in your popular press recently is down right silly, and would certainly result in defamation proceedings under normal circumstances. Mrs Clinton is prepared to destroy the Democratic Party to get her own way. Mr Obama is accused of everything from being a Muslim to committing murder (the accusers seem uncertain which troubles them more). Mr McCain is at death's door.

For pity's sake people, stop and think. Unless you know the candidates personally, how can you claim to know what is in their hearts or minds? And why do you assume the best about your preferred candidate and the worst about everyone else? Have you never heard of positive confirmation bias? Scientific American had a nice article on that a while back, you should read it. And think about why you believe what you believe.

Try and look at the candidates as human beings: flawed, capable of error, perhaps no better than you or me. But look at their commitment: what a strain these last months must have been, and how tired they all must be. Certainly ambition must be one of the things that drives them, but I doubt it can be the only thing. They all believe that they can make America, and by extension, the world a better place.

So try to separate yourself from tribal loyalties, and look at the big picture. No angels, no demons, just people. Which one is strong enough to stand four years of one of the toughest jobs imaginable, and which can do the most good. Given where 8 years of the Bush administration has taken you, you could elect a stray dog and get a better result.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Back on track

OK, so my disease wasn't whooping cough (yay!), I have what the medical profession is pleased to call post-virus asthma. My doctor has prescribed Ventolin, which seems to help. I've been frantically busy for the last few weeks, working on a long report on two factor authentication for a bank. However, the backlog fog is now clearing, and normal service will resume.


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